In August 2006, 18 months before I would choose to leave South Africa, I was invited to speak at a gathering of technology pundits.
It was still the height of the last economic boom and the room was a hubbub of young people doing well for themselves. I was surviving a disastrous business venture and had spent a year contemplating the emptiness behind that financial well-being.
“An individual is a person with a long tail. Individuals have tended to live in states full of wildly swinging doors. Cities, nations and markets are as able to serve their needs as they are of tracking every grain of sand in a three-week desert sand-storm,” I said.
I warned of revolution, that emerging social media would lead to people finding mutual interests that would permit them to express themselves in ways we had yet to understand. People who are currently alienated and isolated will make common cause with others.
“Total communication means that this sense of alienation can be reinforced by others who feel the same way. If there is no path through that conformity then that alienation becomes channelled into expressions of rage against the dominant market states. That rage becomes all-consuming and the myriad complexities of self are subsumed into these new reactionary markets.”
I was trying to understand how Al Qaeda and similar terrorist organisations could be beaten, and I knew it would not be by the existing system of national governments. I also knew that what did beat Al Qaeda would be foreign and chaotic.
“As dominant market states attempt to counter the fears of these reactors they are caught in a trap. Everything they do appears to strengthen the belief of the reactors: that they are powerless and that they must fight else their whole world will be destroyed. Sometimes these fears are expressed in mindlessly destructive and self-destructive ways.”
My thoughts are summarised in a presentation I put online in 2010, which I called The State Tetrad.
I was suggesting that social media would start to lead global and local politics; that these so-called social media thought-leaders I was addressing would need to start thinking about what the implications were likely to be.
I was met with polite discomfort and bemusement. They were wrong.
Egypt has just experienced a coup. Or not. No-one is sure. If a government completely loses the faith of 14 million citizens who march on the centre of power, and utterly reject the state constitution, is the removal of that state authority a coup or a vote?
To give another example: in June, Microsoft announced a major new approach to purchasing games for their newly-launched Xbox One. Within days, after sustained and self-organised social media campaigns, the company reversed itself and totally changed its business approach.
Social media campaigns have – far from being pyjama-parties – caused companies to quiver, nations to change their policies, and governments to fall.
In February 2011, in the aftermath of uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt – but before Occupy Wall Street – I wrote that the mix of urbanisation, under-employed youth, opportunities reserved for elites, corruption, malinvestment and rising expectations of the benefits of economic growth, is volatile.
In social media, when people are upset, they demand instant change. That conflicts with the typical nation approach to democracy; of giving elected officials a set term of absolute ownership.
So, is what happened in Egypt a coup or the future of democracy? That people tolerate a government for as long as they deliver and then “vote” through mass protest until a new dispensation is agreed?
That isn’t actually efficient. Peaceful transfer of power and a consistent set of rules governing an entire nation is more useful and efficient than throwing everything out every few months through revolution.
Just as clearly, fixed terms combined with people’s demand for instant gratification are likely to lead to increasing instability.
Imagine we could change our governments the way we change our share portfolio? If I don’t like the direction of a company, I sell their shares and reinvest in a company I prefer.
Imagine I could do the same thing with my political representation. Each party is represented and each party has shares available for purchase. Each person (voter) can only ever own one share at a time. I can change any time and as often as I like.
If politicians are voting on a new bill to bring in gay marriage and the party I support is against it, then I could simply switch my vote to the party that represents my views. Politicians would vote and the value of their vote would be a reflection of the shares of the electorate they have at any one time.
Instead of there being an artificial electoral cycle, politics would be more like using a price-comparison website and making a commercial decision. I could even deliberately refuse to spend my vote if I disliked all the parties.
Can you imagine how sensitive politicians would become?
There is a flaw with this plan, of course. The best statesmen and women are those who challenge the status quo. Those who declare that “actually, foreigners aren’t evil, gay marriage is wonderful, and you’re fat because you eat too much, not because companies sell fast food.”
A society led only by the instinctive and instantaneous impulses of the majority would be a scary place. It wouldn’t necessarily be better than what we have. We’d be replacing one set of vested interests with another.
Voters will never agree to higher prices for energy, but higher prices (in the form of a carbon tax) are necessary if we are to combat carbon production.
An ideal form of political representation would give voters the flexibility to express themselves continuously while still permitting unpopular, but correct, policies to be enacted.
Perhaps two houses of representatives; one selected by a live voters-exchange and one by universal, periodic, suffrage.
Something has to give, though. Politicians are universally loathed, whether democratically elected or not. The people are out on the streets. Their voices are loud and raw. But how will anyone hear?